Brotherly Hate

Touted as a comedy-thriller, Corpse! is more accurately a thriller-comedy in which the suspenseful plotting of Act I gives way to farce in Act II. Picture a film adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery starring Benny Hill, and you'll have some idea of the myriad plot twists and loony slapstick offered in this 1986 British import now running at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables.

Set in London, the action takes place on December 11, 1936, as the city waits for King Edward VIII to turn his crown over to his brother. Inside his seedy studio apartment overflowing with theatrical memorabilia, unemployed actor Evelyn Farrant (Wayne LeGette) has plans for his own sibling: murder.

Munching on the French bread and pate he pilfered on his latest shoplifting expedition, Evelyn tells his amorous landlady, Mrs. McGee (Harriet Oser), that his money troubles are about to end. She suggests that, until then, she'd be willing to help Evelyn out personally with the first part of his bed-and-board arrangement. Evelyn, who is gay, dodges her advances.

After seeing his landlady off, Evelyn welcomes con man Ambrose Powell (Gary Marachek) into his home, and the game is officially afoot. Dubiously calling himself Major, Powell cases the apartment for items he can slip into his pockets while listening, with growing discomfort, to Evelyn's convoluted scheme: Powell will kill the actor's rich twin, Rupert, that very evening, and Evelyn will assume his estranged brother's identity.

Powell doesn't have much of a choice. Evelyn, who seems to know everything about the major's unsavory past, threatens blackmail, so the major puts the plan into motion by paying a visit to the stylish Art Deco apartment of the penny-pinching Rupert (also LeGette). From here on in, Corpse! serves up a deli's worth of red herrings and clues, including a hidden room, ulcer pills taken at regular intervals, unexpected visits from police bobby Hawkins (Hugh M. Murphy), and Evelyn's tricky theatrical props. Eventually Powell discovers that the cold-hearted twins are identical in just about every way, except for their mannerisms and hobbies (one researches deadly poisons, the other is a fencing master).

While the characters here are too one-dimensional to provide the suspense of thrillers like Deathtrap and Sleuth, they're the perfect clowns to carry off the farce in Act II, in which Evelyn's machinations unravel. Mugging shamelessly with his pliable face, Marachek delightfully steals the show as the major stumbles through his murderous assignment, eyes popping at mounting complications, his elbow bending with each whiskey shot. Characters in British thrillers usually display the utmost aplomb as bodies fall out of the woodwork, but Marachek's major delivers a hilarious dose of get-me-outta-here realism.

LeGette's twins also fare better as campy villains. Flitting about his apartment and reciting from Richard III like a man who would be queen, Evelyn gives up the blank verse to explain to the major why he wants his brother dead: "He's very rich, and I hate him." LeGette stiffens his wrists and deepens his voice to become Rupert, a skinflint who writes a check for the cheapest ticket in the policemen's raffle. With mannerisms as broad as the comedy, LeGette won't win any award for political correctness, but he keeps the plot moving with a combination of well-oiled menace and sly timing.

Oser and Murphy flesh out the more straightforward roles, which serve as mere plot contrivances. During the show's best bit, Oser scores when her McGee complicates Evelyn's scheme by drunkenly continuing her lascivious come-ons even though the object of her desire seems particularly, um, lifeless. Likewise Murphy meets the demands of his brief role by reminding us of every policeman who ever delivered gruesome news to Sherlock Holmes.

While he's no Arthur Conan Doyle, playwright Gerald Moon does live in London, where he was born and continues to work as actor and playwright. After a successful West End premiere in 1985, Corpse! limped through a three-month Broadway run a year later. Under David Arisco's direction, Moon's play has more in common with Ray Cooney's farces than with Anthony Shaffer's whodunits. Arisco wisely highlights the comedy, but he fails to blend it convincingly with the thriller's labyrinthine plot.

Offering a better mix is Gene Seyffer's handsome turntable set, which rotates from Evelyn's evocative squalor to the pristine opulence of Rupert's apartment. Mary Lynne Izzo's period costumes fit the bill nicely, but Stuart Reiter's lighting doesn't offer any of the mysterious atmosphere called for in this play. Nate Rausch's rocky sound design is equally deficient, rendering some snatches of dialogue inaudible.

Corpse! may not be any better than the sum of its comedy and thriller parts, but the fun of figuring out the plot and watching a fine, funny cast adds up to a pleasant evening in the theater.

Corpse! Written by Gerald Moon. Directed by David Arisco. Starring Wayne LeGette, Gary Marachek, Hugh M. Murphy, and Harriet Oser. Through February 14. Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-444-9293.

Stage Whispers
On Monday, January 26, thousands turned out for the Mayor's Economic Summit hosted by Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. That evening, a decidedly smaller crowd, about two dozen, showed up for the Theatre League of South Florida's fourth annual roundtable at Coral Gables' New Theatre. The subject, as always, was the state of the theater community, and opinions were mixed: Theater managers and producers applauded the past year's ticket sales while spectators felt that, artistically speaking, there's lots of room for improvement.

The five-member panel, led by League President Barry Steinman, included Jerry Waxman, producing director of the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre; Rafael de Acha, producing artistic director of New Theatre; Barbara Stein, executive producer of Coral Gables' Actors Playhouse; and Earl Hughes, director of production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. All of them expressed optimism based primarily on increased ticket sales at their respective venues. But the audience -- consisting of actors, writers, producers, directors, and educators -- was less content.

Audience members argued that, although outreach and discount-ticket programs already exist, they need to be expanded so that theaters can continue to draw larger and more diverse audiences. The panel members dismissed the need for expansion, saying the next step is to target niche audiences, with productions offering black, gay, and Hispanic themes.

Stein reminded everyone that, bottom line, the product determines the potential for filling seats. She recalled her theater's recent success with West Side "I knew we had arrived when a scalper in Aventura was selling tickets for $75. At its last performance, a person had a sign reading, 'Will pay anything for two tickets.'" But her theater's current production, Corpse! (see review), is a somewhat obscure four-character production that is bringing in smaller houses. "Let's face it," she said, "It's still true: You're only as good as your last production."

The only naysayer on the panel was George Contini, who works for various theaters as an actor, playwright, director, and literary manager. "Each of your theaters has seen tremendous growth, and I have seen great things on your stages," he admitted. "But then why am I so depressed?" He elaborated by adding: "I was flipping [through TV] channels and came upon a documentary on vaudeville and thought, 'This is us; we're a museum piece.'"

Contini had a suggestion for updating theater in South Florida. Forge an identity, he said, just as other regions have. Chicago theater, for example, is recognized for its brashness; Seattle for its experimentation; New York for its cutting-edge, off-Broadway playhouses. So what should South Florida be known for?

"We need to focus on nontraditional casting, and I don't mean simply casting a black person in a white role," Contini said. "I mean throwing out any idea of what a cast should look like and taking advantage of the multiethnic mixture of our community."

While that idea may not be commercially viable, at least it's an idea. The latest roundtable avoided the lengthy gripe sessions of the past three years, but it offered no concrete solution. That's too bad, because the community needs leadership, more loyal audiences, and a distinct image -- not just increased ticket sales. I applaud the League's commitment to fostering dialogue, but, thus far, the roundtables have produced plenty of talk but no action.

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Savannah Whaley